It was the soothing melodies of the Cocteau Twins flowing from the speakers in Shoreditch Town Hall that calmed my nerves last week. Frazzled by travelling in a blustery rain storm and weighed down by grief I felt strangely connected to the night’s event before the speaker had even taken to the stage.
The space reminded me of Cadogan Hall, albeit a well-worn version. I couldn’t help overhear a group chattering behind me, trying to explain to each other what we had gathered to see, and being silently glad they struggled like I did to quantify it.
Rose McGowan has been on my radar since I was a teenager. I’m embarrassed to admit I knew her first as a rock star’s girlfriend, and not for her own talents which have grown from actress to include writer and activist. The event was titled Planet 9, and described on the event organiser (Funzing) site as a multi-media performance art piece; meaning expectations were left wide open. I really wasn’t sure what we’d be experiencing.
McGowan took to the stage to the sound of extended applause from the thrilled audience. Introducing her project by broadly referencing her now public trauma, the vitriol she has received for standing up to powerful people and subsequently becoming one of the faces of the resurgence of the #MeToo movement. McGowan felt her creativity overwhelmed and needed an expressive outlet which resulted in the album she was about to play for us. We sat back and listened to about 40 minutes’ worth of original songs accompanied by visuals. Planet 9 is a new realm of creative possibilities and she was inviting us to join her on her journey there.
This was nothing like what I could have anticipated; I have never been to an ‘album party’ before, and certainly not one accompanied by visuals. I struggled with adjectives as I sat stiller than I had for a long time; when I could articulate I began with ‘uncomfortable’. The first song was accompanied by a close up video of a pair of eyes that seemed to be behind goggles or a screen of sorts, with occasional blinks of black frames giving a strobe light effect while the image got closer and tighter and then suddenly jumping back to its starting position before creeping closer again. I found this so claustrophobic I started getting worried about lasting the rest of the album.
Gladly this sensation didn’t last, but became the launch pad for a journey through discord and struggle toward a place of peace; moving from odd to oddly comforting and it was utterly mesmeric. Through a series of varied upbeat, stark and ethereal tracks, McGowan’s images slow motioned, looped, kaleidoscoped and emoted so deeply I found myself in tears. The fear and pain expressed were so personal and scarily relatable, but the focus was the journey to healing which resonated strongly with me. It genuinely felt a privilege to witness, and hearing some eighties influence in the music as well meant it was right up my aural alley.
There was a short break, where I pulled myself together, followed by a Q&A session with McGowan. One of the hosts asked if there were questions and my hand shot up before I really considered what I wanted to say. I felt a bit starstruck as the microphone found my hand. I gushed of course, thanking her for taking us on such a deeply personal journey, and commenting that for me it was the soundtrack that solidified the ground beneath your feet, so when your knees shake and buckle you know there is something there to catch you. Thinking I was spouting nonsense and expecting her to move on, she instead leaned her head back stretched her arms at her sides and the audience clapped; I then asked her when it would be available for us to experience in our own time. Thanking me for “the assessment” she said the project was still evolving but would hopefully be out early next year.
Asked about the visuals McGowan said she had shot them all herself using a mix of projections and loops. This in itself was a process for her considering her relationship with cameras began as adversarial. She had no pictures taken of her growing up and upon being discovered and then thrust in front of them as an actress, made her feel like she was in a battle with the lens. Using it as a tool would have formed part of the healing I would think, perhaps adding to the holistic sense of Planet 9, and its relatability.
McGowan had shown Planet 9 under the banner of Spoken Word at the Edinburgh Fringe, which doesn’t quite feel like the right title for it, and she admitted she was still figuring out how to present the concept. Some audience members said they would love her to perform it as a DJ set and I agree the mesmeric quality would be amplified in that kind of setting. She mentioned an idea of having people lie down with their heads in a dome projecting the images onto it so it was an all surrounding experience, but admitted that could be a bit too frightening. I’d agree, but then thought to myself maybe if it was projected into a planetarium dome then the audience could lie back and freely float through it.
She also admitted the album had been EQ’d for her Porsche, at which point she stopped and said before we all thought her too fancy, she’d only ever owned two things; one of which was her Porsche and the other being half a graveyard. (Just when I thought she couldn’t get any cooler) Asked if she had any other musical aspiration she said she’d love to make a country album with Jack White, which would be brilliant actually.
Responding to other questions she mentioned she was, of course, still healing herself but was resolute that all her negative experiences would not “take her softness”. McGowan has never been ‘part of the crowd’ and has been mercilessly ostracised by ‘the establishment’ in Hollywood but she has always been a survivor; leaving the Children of God cult in which she was born to becoming a homeless teenager being inspired by Madonna to rise above her circumstances. She admitted to knowing at the age of 6: “I was going to fuck up the world” and making good on that assurance. Relating to historical figures like Joan of Arc (who I remember being a little obsessive about when I was young) she said she draws strength from ghosts in a way, and while she may never be distinct from her trauma experiences now, she was pulling herself up by her bootstraps and carrying on; quoting Hemingway who said about writing: “All you do is sit down at a typewriter and bleed.”
Something I also mentioned to McGowan in my ramble to her was that the message of healing emanating from Planet 9 felt so precious, yet much more powerful now that it was shared. This piece may have been borne from dark circumstances but it could be a rallying cry for all who have been injured to connect, find community and grow stronger together.
Ultimately moving and motivating, I would like to add ‘creator’ to the list of talents attributed to McGowan. Admitting an album of this nature is normally released for posterity she did hope it would find an audience while she was still alive and I sincerely hope the same. I look forward to taking off to Planet 9 again.